Are we storytelling – or just telling stories?

Rob Lowe profile smlWhile storytelling has become one of adland’s biggest buzzwords Rob Lowe argues marketers are failing to make the necessary emotional connections. 

I remember first hearing people talk about ‘storytelling’ a few years ago. I never quite understood it then and I still don’t fully understand the term now.

In fact, like many others, I think it’s overused marketing jazz.

A story to me typically has a beginning, a middle and an end.  It’s structured. It depicts an event or series of linked events. I can think of a handful of campaigns that do that;

  • AAMI’s Rhonda and Ketut

  • the New Zealand Transport Agency’s ‘Mistakes’ Car Crash ad

  •  and their ‘Tinnyvision’ Snapchat content series

But there’s not much of it and not many people do it effectively. I don’t know who first coined the term ‘storytelling’, and I’m sure it helped serve a purpose at the time in selling in a campaign, but why do the rest of us still insist on white washing our campaigns with it? I don’t think people have taken the time to question why storytelling might be effective on motivating consumers in the first place.

My belief is that some stories, if told well, can inspire emotions in their listeners. When bards travelled medieval England, telling stories, singing songs and reciting poetry, there was a similar intention, to pass on information and entertain people. People listened because what they said inspired excitement, fear, hope and wonder. All strong emotions.

And in fact, it’s emotions, not stories, that influence people. This is what I believe we’ve failed to acknowledge.

Emotions have greater influence on consumers than rational fact. Maya Angelou, an American poet and author, once said: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

The same goes for brands. I choose Nike because the brand inspires me to lead a healthier life, not because it makes better sneakers. I choose Apple products because I feel its single-minded ethos reflects on my own work standards, however I’m sure Samsung phones do just the same thing. I believe that what people mean, when they talk about ‘storytelling’, is that their campaign will inspire some emotion in the consumer. However this doesn’t necessarily make it a story.

Psychologists have for many years acknowledged that it’s emotion, not rational thought, that leads people to chose one brand over another. In 2013, Psychology Today published an article that said: “For consumers, perhaps the most important characteristic of emotions is that they push us towards action.”

The thought goes as far back as the 17th Century when the French mathematician and philosopher, Pascal said: “The heart has reasons, which reason doesn’t understand.”

What we’re really trying to do as marketers, is move people. And this is why there’s been a trend recently towards cause related campaigns that show brands doing something good for society, such as Always’ ‘Like a girl’, or tear jerkers like Samsung’s ‘Hearing hands’

They’re emotional and from a cynical point of view, they’re designed to create emotional connections with the consumer and ultimately sell more product.

When we launched Poem we set out with the intention of offering a more human PR offering. To us that means having a human (and therefore more emotional) insight at the core of everything we do.  Whether that be social content, a stunt, launch event, influencer involvement, press office tactic or online video, everything we do has a cultural tension that’s relevant to the interests of the people we’re trying to engage.

Brands can’t just make noise any more. They need to start acting in a more human way in order to gain social currency. They need to be authentic and culturally relevant.

Droga 5 CEO, Sudeep Gohil put it well at a recent Google Fire starters event, “Understanding humans is one of the future aspects of planning,” Gohil told the audience. “Being part of culture is more important than any strategy you can come up with because no one turns around and says I love that strategy or I love that ad, instead they talk about things they love which is generally not the stuff we create.”

From our previous integrated agency experience and the campaigns we’ve both led, we came to believe that this emphasis on a more human approach is far more effective and cost efficient than shouting at people or telling tall stories about storytelling.

It’s also just as relevant to all communications, whether that be paid, owned or earned media channels.

  • Rob Lowe is a founder of PR agency Poem

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